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February 14, 2012
Article

What Role Did Recreational Fishing Have in Cod Decline?

by Craig Idlebrook

As the New England groundfishing community absorbs the shock of the National Marine Fisheries Service cod reassessment in the Gulf of Maine, stakeholders are beginning to sift through the data for unexpected factors that might account for the diminished cod numbers. One surprise they’ve found is the National Marine Fisheries Service’s (NMFS) assertion that recreational fishing played a significant role in diminishing cod stocks in the Gulf of Maine. The newest assessment numbers on recreational fishing have led officials to believe rod-and-reel fishermen have been taking more cod at a quicker rate than in the last assessment, said officials.

“The data has shown that it’s increasing over time,” said Chris Legault, a NMFS assessment biologist at the Northeast Fisheries Science Center.

But that higher take rate may at least partly be a result of better tracking of recreational fishermen. For past assessments, government officials often relied on by-phone and on-dock surveys for some chartered fishing boats. But recently, NOAA has begun placing observers on board more chartered vessels. This has led to a more accurate picture of the fish discarded by recreational fishermen. The new data shows a spike in discarded cod by recreational fishermen, which worries some in the commercial fishing industry.

It’s a discard rate that seems “astronomical to where it has been in the past,” said Ben Martens, policy director of the Maine Fishermen’s Association. “It’s very unnerving.”

The fish is popular with charter boats, said Maggie Mooney-Seus, a spokesperson for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). “Party charter boats go out and rely on cod,” she said.

And the margin is tight enough for the cod restoration effort that a few dozen charter boats theoretically might make a difference. During the previous assessment in 2008, scientists pegged cod numbers at just over 50 percent of the target biomass goal for restoration. In the latest assessment, cod biomass dipped just below that 50 percent threshold, which, under the restoration plan, triggers the need for officials to restrict cod landings. NOAA officials cut cod numbers by 22 percent for the coming cod season in an emergency ruling. The numbers don’t point to a collapse of the cod fishery, but the situation still requires action, said Mooney-Seus.

“It’s a small change. People are not getting that subtlety,” said Mooney-Seus.

And the dip certainly isn’t all because of recreational fishing, officials stress. One key factor in the lower numbers is that scientists are using a more sensitive model to crunch the numbers, said Legault. In the 2008 assessment, scientists overestimated the future growth rate of the cod measured, said Mooney-Seus. And climate change may be playing a factor, as a recent University of Washington study found that cod growth stunted in waters off the Norwegian coast that had warmed by more than 15 degrees since 1919, as reported in Scientific American.

But many in the fishing community question the most recent assessment, gun-shy because of the abrupt shift in the current assessment over the 2008 figures. If the 2008 assessment was inaccurate, they argue, what’s to say that the most recent assessment is accurate?

“There are a lot of things that don’t make sense,” said Martens.

Martens questions the assessment’s cod mortality rates in recreational fishing. He said researchers are wrong to peg the mortality rate of discarded cod at 100 percent. The researchers are counting every fish thrown back by recreational fishermen as a dead fish, an assertion which Martens calls “blatantly untrue”.

Legault understands skepticism over the most recent assessment numbers, and he said that every assessment contains some uncertainty, but he says that this assessment has been tested for accuracy more rigorously than the previous assessment. The 100 percent discard mortality rate was necessary in the assessment model, Legault said, because the data didn’t offer another rate with the same certainty.

“100 percent is a barrier answer, but they could not come up with a sensible number based on the studies,” Legault said.

Altogether, Martens is frustrated because commercial fishermen who must follow tight government regulations are being impacted by a recreational fishing industry that is only beginning to be regulated and studied.

“If there’s a problem, we need to take that very seriously,” said Martens. “We just want to see a similar set of criteria being held against the recreational fishing community.”   

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